A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

Five Reasons Why Andalucía is the Place to Be in May

Andalucía in springtime is perhaps the closest I can get to nirvana. Yes, the azahar flowers met an untimely death in April and my allergies are rampant, but even the short bursts of rain seem more poetic and more welcome now, because I’ll soon be slurping down snails or sneaking in a beer before work. The sky is blue and the temperature is perfect; the beaches are uncrowded and tourists have yet to choke city centers and my favorite tapas bars.

Even with flight deals to foreign destinations, staying close to home in Andalucía is my first choice when it comes to weekend plans and city breaks. From ferias to romerías, my social calendar is already packed with ideas!

Things to do in Andalusia in May

While I’m busy preparing for my sister’s wedding in the US along with the crazed end-of-term tasks, please grab a cervecita and enjoy some of these festivals for me this month!

Jerez de la Frontera: La Feria del Caballo

May kicks off with La Feria del Caballo, a smaller more welcoming version of my local Feria de Sevilla in little sister city Jerez de la Frontera. A city renowned for its sherry production and Andalusian horses, the festivities revolve around just those things. Head to the recinto ferial on the north end of town to dance Sevillanas and gawk at horse carriages, glass of fino in hand.

Feria de Jerez

And no need to wear a traje de gitana, chicas – this feria is way more laid-back!

2016 dates: April 30 to May 6

Córdoba: Cruces de Mayo, Festival de los Patios, Feria de Córdoba

Seville’s big month is April, but May is totally Córdoba’s time to shine. While it may not be as grandiose as its westerly neighbor, the Ciudad Califa has THREE festivals of national touristic interest.

calleja de las flores córdoba

Cruces de Mayo, which typically takes place during the first weekend of the month, sees large flower crosses set up in city plazas as offerings (and, rumor has it, there are small bars selling food and drink). Next up is the Patios Festival, where locals open their homes and gardens to the public, their walls and wells draped in beautiful flowers. If your wallet hasn’t burned a hole in your pocket during your stay in Andalusia yet, the cordobés version of a feria closes out the month.

2016 dates: Cruces is April 28 to May 2, after which the Patios are open daily until May 15th. The Feria will be held from the 21st and 28th of the month.

Málaga: Noche en Blanco

Málaga is an up-and-coming touristic epicenter, and the city has responded by offering 20% more activities, openings and gatherings for their annual White Night. Fashioned after its American counterparts, the museums, galleries, expositions and tours here will operate until 2am.

You can see the full program here.

2016 dates: May 14th from 8pm until 2am.

Huelva: La Romería de El Rocío

My first trip to El Rocío – a mere hour’s bus ride from Seville – was one for the books. Straight out of the American Wild West, I was surrounded by people from all over Spain who were devoted to an effigy found near the marshes of Doñana National Park. From parades to enormous corrales housing groups of hermandades, this is certainly quite an event!

IMG_4805

I call her the lushy Virgin Mary, as her party on Pentecost Sunday is also characterized by hedonism. After the long walk to the Aldea from various parts of Spain, the statue “jumps” over the altar and is passed around town on the shoulders of her followers. The best part of the Salta de la Reja is that it happens at a different time every year, meaning Sunday night reaches fever pitch proportions.

2016 dates: the carrozas leave their respective hermandades on various days leading up to Pentecost Sunday, which is May 15th this year.

Granada and Almería: Moros y Cristianos

This long-standing festival, reenacting the Christian Reconquest of Spain during the 8th to 15th centuries, isn’t limited to Andalucía – many locals in southwest and south central Spain have their own version of the event. Imagine full-scale battles, costumes and an enormous medieval fair (meat on a stick!). And given that Andalucía – Granada specifically – was the last stronghold of the Moors, the region takes pride in their rendition.

2016 dates: Dates vary by municipality, but count on late May or June; check local websites.

come and drink

As for Seville? It’s still recovering from Semana Santa and Feria! I’ve been drinking in the temperate weather, the sunny bike rides to work and the longer evening light. Well, that and draining my wallet on gas and bocadillos.

Even if you’re visiting Andalusia on an all-inclusive holiday or cruise, make time to experience these visitor-friendly festivals – they will give you an insight into Andalusian culture and tradition in the wonderful region I now call home.

Curious about events taking place in other parts of Spain? Madrid’s local festival, San Isidro, is marked by bullfights and events around the city, and Girona is famous for its Temps de Flors. Devour Spain covers the ins and outs of San Isidro, and Jess’s photos of the flower festival are gorgeous! And my apologies: I should have pushed publish on this article two weeks ago – oops! 

What’s your favorite springtime festival in Spain?

Preguntas Ardientes: Can I Enjoy the Feria de Abril as a Tourist?

The azahar bloomed while I was away. Even in Valencia, home to the famous oranges of the same name, the smell was cinged off by firecrackers and smoke during Las Fallas. And as I watched a gigantic Merlin burn from a towering statue to a small pyre, marking the end of my first Fallas, my next thought was immediately on the next big event: the Feria de Sevilla.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

I am a dedicated feriante – I try on my traje de gitana weeks before to ensure its fit, attend flamenco fashion shows and a sevillana was the third song played at my wedding. I wait for the alumbrado with as much nervous energy as I pine for the last day of school. Feria is my jam, and everyone knows it.

But what if you’re a tourist, or passing though Seville during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? I get this question often, and not just from tourists, but from those living elsewhere in Spain. I may live the sevillana version of high life when it comes to horse carriages and caseta invitations on occasion, but I also freak out in the days leading up to the fair, thinking that I may not have a place to go, or I may be stuck wandering the Real while I wait for a friend to answer their GD phone. In no other moment do I feel as foreign as I do local.

Know Before You Go

Spain is definitely a country that, on the surface, seems welcoming. The sunshine! The fiestas! The people! But in Seville, lo señorío and el postureo run deep, meaning that anyone outside of posh social clubs, religious brotherhoods or the Duquesa de Alba’s inner circle can get left in the albero.

farolillos

Begun as a cattle fair several centuries ago, the Feria de Abril marks the first of Andalusia’s springtime fairs. It’s the largest, most popular, and the place to see and be seen. During one glorious week of the springtime, makeshift tents, called casetas, are erected on a patch of land that is unused for 51 weeks of the year. This is called the Real de la Feria, and in the weeks leading up to the event, workers log in hours setting up the casetas, stringing up lights and building an enormous main gate, called the portada.

The party starts on the third Monday following Resurrection Sunday with a socios-only fried fish dinner, known at the pescaíto. At midnight, the mayor turns on the lights of the entire fairgrounds, ending with the portada, and sevillanas immediately tumble out of the tents. The Feria continues every day from about 1pm until the wee hours of the morning, officially shuttered on Sunday night with a fireworks display at dusk.

alumbrado feria de sevilla 2010

The casetas are owned by religious groups, social clubs, political parties and groups of wealthy friends. A whopping 90% of them are privately owned and run, so you’ll usually see someone guarding the entrance and asking for proof that you’re in association with the tent’s dwellers that week. And the list for securing your own caseta is over a decade long, so it’s best to make friends before the fair starts.

Making the most of Seville’s most exclusive party

Feria is an expensive party – from the horse carriage rentals to the tent memberships to the clothing – but it’s free to attend, and gawking doesn’t cost a cent. But to truly enjoy it, you may have to lower your expectations.

La Feria en Crisis

First, know that there are two sides to the fair: Feria de Día, and Feria de Noche. Daytime fair is far more demure, as this is when most socios spend their time at the fairgrounds; the fair at night becomes borderline hedonistic, where tent flaps are drawn and sevillanas disappear.

Should you choose to go in the daytime, you’ll be treated to carriage parades and striking Andalusian horses until dusk – not to mention the daily bullfights happening in La Maestranza, bringing in some of the biggest names in bullfighting. This is the fair at its purest, with flamenco music playing and castanets clapping. Be aware that this is also when it’s the most difficult to gain access to the private tents. I have a less-than-stellar reputation of inviting my friends to Los Sanotes, which means side eyes and a stiff greeting from a few of the more traditional socios. But once night falls, most of the older crowd has gone home, making it easier to pop in and out of the casetas.

Free Casetas  – the city operates a number of public access Distrito tents, which are larger and a bit more raucous than a traditional tent. Those also open to the general public are casetas belonging to political parties, labor unions and, in some cases, religious brotherhoods.

A Map of the Seville Fair fairground and free public casetas

If you know someone who is in the local police force or works for a large, locally-based company like Abengoa or ABC, ask them if you can buy entrances from them. These sorts of places don’t operate using cash, but rather tickets in various denominations for food and beverage.

Or, you can always use the, “My friend is back at the bar and not answering my phone calls” trick to sneak into a crowded tent! Not that I ever have.

Dressing Up – On my first Feria, the Novio invited me to his best friend’s family’s tent (a rather estrecha relationship for Feria) for the Alumbrado. Knowing that the fairgrounds were full of albero, a chalky dirt than lends well to both bullfights and horse poop, I dressed as if I were doing housework – ratty jeans and tennis shoes.

I may never live that or the baby-sized complementos down (ugh, not to mention both a mantoncillo and a gargantilla wrapped into one outfit):

Vamanos a la Feria Carino Mio!

Remember that this is an event where you’re to see and be seen. Even if you’re not planning on donning a pricey traje de gitana, women should wear a dress or dress trousers. I don’t know how, but heels are a must. Men, in many private casetas, are required to wear a suit and tie after 9pm, regardless of the heat.

And please none of those souvenir-shop dresses or hair clips – that screams guiri more than getting too drunk off of rebujito!

Etiquette – That brings me to my next point, or fairground etiquette. On Seville’s biggest stage, you’ll notice that despite the abundance of alcohol and atmosphere, no one is outwardly drunk until nighttime. I was once kicked out of a caseta for being with a friend who’d imbibed a little too much!

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

If you receive an invitation to a private caseta, don’t bring 10 more of your friends without asking. It’s customary to buy the first round of drinks, though you’ll more than likely be turned down. If the tent is crowded, don’t immediately take a seat, as it’s an unwritten rule that those tables are reserved for paying members. Instead, make friends with the bartender – just don’t forget to pay your tab or overstay your welcome!

Some casetas will simply ask you who you’re with, as it is up to that socio or family to split the bill at the end of the week.

Spanish and Flamenco dancing – I’m often asked how necessary it is to dance sevillanas to enjoy the fair. While it’s definitely my favorite part of the whole experience, you do not have to know this four-part dance. Sitting and watching is fun, and people will often break into the dance on the streets, as well.

Should you be in Seville for a few weeks and want to learn, dance studios and gyms have intensive courses for 10-15€/hr. Check out Cuesta Sport, Látidos or Helena Pachón to learn how to coger la manzana, la comes, la tiras.

Flamencas on a horse carriage

As for knowing Spanish – it’s helpful. How else will you insist upon buying a whole round of montaditos de lomo for your generous hosts?

Fairground Tours – if you’re a little freaked out for a first-timer, find the information booth just under the main gate on Antonio Bienvenida. The city’s tourism board offers tours around the fairgrounds, culminating in a drink in a public caseta. Let the rebujito flow!

My advice for a Feria first-timer

I was completely unprepared for my first Feria, from my lack of proper clothing to not saving enough money to truly enjoy it. If you’re visiting Seville for the first time, don’t let the Feria be your only plans – since the fairgrounds aren’t in the city center, you’ll find that it’s less intrusive than Semana Santa.

Portada de la Feria 2013

Take one day out to go to the Real after lunchtime and a siesta. Dress up nicely – long, dangly earrings and a shawl are fine, but don’t overdo it if you don’t have a traje de gitana, ladies. Walk across the Puente de San Telmo and the entire length of Calle Asuncion, which leads right to the main gate. Take a stroll around the Real to marvel at the horses and the elegant costumes before popping into a public caseta – the Fiestas Mayores (Costillares, 10) and Partido Popular (Pascual Márquez, 66) tents are a bit pricier for food and drink, but often have live music from 8pm or 10pm on. If you can’t score a private tent invitation and sweet talking gets you nowhere, skip dinner and have hot chocolate and fried donuts on Calle Manolo Vázquez.

How To (3)

Read more of my posts on the Feria de Abril, Seville’s most flamboyant celebration, from how to dress and dress up your dress, a list of vocabulary you’ll encounter and the Dos and Dont’s.

Have you been to the Feria de Sevilla as a tourist? What were you thoughts – I would love to hear the negative!

Vía Crucis de Santiponce: Semana Santa Lite

Torches lined the gravel path, which inclined ever-so-slightly upwards. Mari Carmen had taken hold of my arm and was pulling me forward through the crowds as pebbles rolled out of place, causing me to stumble – no joke – three times. Up ahead, a procession showing Christ carrying the cross was reaching the top of the hill.

Via Crucis Santiponce

When my friend invited me to a Saturday night out at a small-scale religious procession, I hadn’t been skeptical or searching for something better to do. After turning 30, some sort of chip clicked on, and I have been determined to switch up my weekend routine ever since. Because, #thisis30 and my stamina is not what it used to be. Attending one of the Aljarafe’s most celebrated fiestas locales with an American friend’s Andalusian mother-in-law was going to be a new experience.

Santiponce traditional festival

Accompanied by a somber three-piece woodwind band, we were able to sneak around the gold-laden paso and slip into the crowd next to the local cemetery. Close to 50 brothers, torches and cruces de guía in hand, had taken up rank across from the cemetery’s western wall as Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno sliced through the masses of people. Even on my toes, I couldn’t see but as he passed through the gate, the speakers crackled to life with the Our Father.

Growing up Catholic, I’d learned many prayers by heart, but even working in a Catholic grade school hadn’t prompted me to learn the words in Spanish. I bowed my head so that Mari Carmen wouldn’t see that I couldn’t say more than Padre Nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre

What is a via crucis

As the procession backed up and headed down the hill towards Itálica, an ancient Roman town that saw prosper and the birth of two emperors, I could finally ask Mari Carmen why she’d invited three guiris out to a procession. The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is one of Spain’s most revered Lenten activities, and draws the participation of brotherhoods, called hermandades, from around Spain.

Following the old Roman road through Itálica, we stopped and waited near the entrance to the ampitheatre. Inside, fourteen brotherhoods would line up along the oblong-shaped walls with their cruz de guía, or the crucifix that heads up each procession in its respective hermandad. No pointy hats here. The Cristo would stop at each one as an hermano would read passages from the Bible and pray an Our Father fourteen times.

Via Crucis Spain

Just as the paso passed into the amphitheater, the clouds broke and a drizzle began to fall. Umbrellas went up, blocking my view. Even the threat of rain keeps most Cristos and Vírgenes at home, safe in their temples, but the 25 year-old tradition wouldn’t let the damp weather spoil its journey. Instead, a poncho was placed around the veneration’s shoulders and the first station – Jesus is condemned to death – was completed.

Torches burned and the crowd thinned out at Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno made his way through the last moments of his life. We followed him as he passed the stone walls of Itálica’s most famous ruin as he figuratively prepared for his death and resurrection.

hermandades en un via crucis

Via Crucis Spain Italica

Brotherhoods participating in a Via Crucis in Spain

Altarboys Spain

Santiponce Via Crucis

A tí te gusta la Semana Santa, Cat? Mari Carmen asked, again clutching my arm as we heard the grunts and shoe scoffing of the costaleros under the float as they approached 11th station, the crucifixion. Like Semana Santa, a Vía Crucis a moment of reflection and meditation, a plead for forgiveness or piety, but without the crowds and the pushing come Palm Sunday.

I answered her no, that the raucous celebration of the Feria de Sevilla were far more my pace.

If you go: The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is celebrated yearly and of touristic interest. It is held on the first Sunday of Lent, typically in late February or early March. Admission is free and parking is ample, or you can take the M-170A from Plaza de Armas. 

Via Crucis Santiponce2

Have you ever been to a religious celebration? Have any cool events to share in Spain? If you liked these photos, check out last year’s Palm Sunday processions photo diary!

Tapa Thursday: Tasting Jerez de la Frontera

I’ll admit it – I have a big ol’ crush on Jerez de la Frontera.

While Seville swoons, Jerez pokes and teases, yet always entices. It moves slower. It seems to stay for just one more round of ‘la penúltima.’ Jerez knows how to party, but it also knows how to stop and smell the sherry.

And at just an hour car ride south of La Hispalense, it’s easy to cheat on Seville with Jeré.

Tasting

No stranger to Spanish wine culture, Jerez – along with El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda – make up the Sherry Triangle and produce white wine of the same name. I discovered the Feria de la Vendimia thanks to Devour Spain‘s monthly newsletter, and though we’d missed the grape stomping and the sherry cooking classes, there was still one lingering activity on a sunny Saturday late in the summer: the Feria Gastronómica.

Feria de la Vendimia Jerez

Set in a shady plaza sandwiched between the Alcázar fortress and world-famous González Byass Wineries, nearly two dozen tents offered special tapas and a drink for 3.50€ under caseta tents. Rather than do a lap, we beelined straight to a brightly colored bar at the west end of the square. Being hangry is a good enough excuse for me to follow my nose and tummy into a tent.

Jerezano cuisine is similar to that of Seville, but because the province of Cádiz boasts both sea and fertile terrain, there is more fresh fish and seafood, plus heartier meats. The Bahía de Cádiz is famed for Almendraba tuna and bull meat, called retinto. While it would have been easy to choose croquetas and solomillo, I was determined to choose tapas that were more regional.

Here’s what we devoured:

Pepe Limon Sherry Spritzer

While I’ve become a sherry convert thanks to the Feria de Sevilla, my friends find it too bitter. Pepelimón is the newest product from the makers of a fino variety called Tío Pepe that is half fino, half 100% lemon juice. Like rebujito, it’s sweet and potent (and don’t fret, I had a glass of sherry after we’d eaten).

Destraperlo beer Jerez

Craft beer is on the rise in Spain (admit you just did a fist pump), and Jerez has a new kid on the block, Destraperlo. Irene invited us in for free samples of their pilsner and red brands. La birra más burra es muy buena – it’s got more body than local favorite Cruzcampo, but with less bite than an IPA, making it just right for the Spanish palate. 

Ensaladilla de Pulpo

Thirst quenched, we stuck around in the Guardia de Ángel tent for ensaladilla del pulpo. Octopus is one of those Spanish foods that I would have never thought I’d like, but mixed with mayonnaise and paprika, the salty taste was too overwhelming.

Albondigas de Atun

Sticking with seafood, I nabbed some albóndigas de atún con queso payoyo with homemade tomato sauce. Both alemndraba tuna and Payoyo cheese are native to Cádiz, and this was indeed the star dish of the day.

eggplant tapa in Spain

The berenjena con queso de cabra carmelizada en Pedro Ximénez came recommended at Bar Papanata’s tent. Washed down with sherry, of course!

Sampling sherry in Jerez de la Frontera

Realizing we’d only been on one side of the food fair, we got one more drink at Restaurante Bar Gula. I wanted to try the hamburguesa de retinto, a bull’s meat burger, but we opted for croquetas de tomate y albahaca con jamón and a chicken satay (hey, when you find international food in Andalucía, you order it!). 

After five tapas a piece, we were stuffed!

Croquetas in Jerez

That day was one of those typical Andalusian Saturdays where you look at your watch and ask, wait! Where did the time go? Between catching up on our summers, sampling tapas and ordering another round, it was suddenly after 5pm and time for merienda.

Spanish desserts and I broke up a long time ago, and Jerez’s dessert game seemed a little off (we were so desperate we hiked to a Foster’s Hollywood, the most jankity Friday’s you can imagine, to find it closed). We settled on cakes from a pastelería.

oreo cake

While Jerez’s food culture isn’t terribly different from Seville’s, I can never resist a decent food festival, especially when all of the bars are clumped together.

While Jerez may not be the food mecca, I have a feeling that Sevill’s kid brother might soon have its swan song.

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I visited Jerez’s Feria de la Vendimia with Caser Expat Insurance’s Typical NonSpanish project. All opinions and extra calories are my own.

Have you ever been to a Food Festival in Spain?

Photo Post: La Hermandad Rociera de Triana and the Pilgrimage to El Rocío

“No, no, no,” Lucía shook her head fiercely as curls of white smoke escaped from her lips. “You shouldn’t be in Cerro de Águila by yourself. Crime is rampant over there.”

That following morning at the Novio’s new house in Cerro, I was woken up by the fourth-floor shaking as what sounded like a loud pop boomed throughout. I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me.

Turns out the potential guns from the ‘crime capital’ of Seville were actually noisemakers of the neighborhood’s religious brotherhood.

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Fifty days after Resurrection Sunday, those faithful to the Virgen del Rocío (which is practically all of Southern Spain) make a pilgrimage towards La Aldea, a small hamlet full of stately mansions and dirt roads. The striking hermitage – a grandiose white mirage set at the southern edge of la Aldea with views to the marshes of Doñana National Park – was first built on the supposed spot where Alfonso the Wise found an effigy of the Virgin Mother. Today, it’s popular for its most raucous fiesta in the middle of the springtime. 

Seville counts five hermandades – Savlador and Triana are the most famous – whose numbers are staggering. On the Wednesday before Pentecost Sunday, covered wagons pulled by oxen, horses or even tractors set out towards the Almonte and la Aldea, following a silver-laden carriage with an image of the Rocío known as a simpecado. For many of the devout, this spiritual cleansing, characterized by sleeping and eating outdoors, song and dance and prayer, is the most important part.

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When I worked in Olivares, many of my students went missing in the days leading up to El Rocío and the days surrounding Pentecost. I had a handful named Rocío or Paloma in homenage to the Virgin Mary who, quite possible, is the most revered in Andalucía. 

Few things get me out of bed before 8am, but today I was already out the door at that time, Camarón fully charged and ready to shoot (the cohetes would have woken me up regardless). Mass at the chapel on calle Evangelista began at 7:30am, and the simpecado, preceeded by horses and pilgrims, left shortly thereafter. In the past, the carretas that carry supplied for the ten-day pilgrimage were allowed to traverse Triana, but city ordinance now mandate that the wagons start from Plaza Chapina at the northern end of the neighborhood.

romeros ready for El Rocio

Devout pilgrims at el Rocio

Romeros on Calle Pureza Triana

I followed the crowd to Calle Pureza and the door of the Esperanza de Triana church. Here, in one of the most emblematic monuments of the barrio, the simpecado would pass, the devout would pray and the pilgrimage would truly begin.

Perched on the curb just opposite the gleaming white temple, itself a nod to its marisma counterpart 70 kilometers west, I watched as romeros – the name for pilgrims around these parts – flooded the streets. Men wear straw hats and women don flamenco dresses that are easier to walk in, all clutching medals that bear the Virgen del Rocío.

Rocio Fashion 2015

carretas of El Rocio

Gitanas El Rocio

A three-piece band led the procession. Sevillanas with a twist, rocieras use a cane and a bass drum instead of cajas and flutes in place of guitars, and singers belt out songs proclaiming the glory of the Blanca Paloma. Behind them came romeros on horseback and the image of the Virgen herself.

music of el Rocio

prensa en el rocio

Triana to El Rocio on horseback

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Romeros de Triana 2015

Calle Pureza during El Rocio

El Rocio passing by the Esperanza de Triana

Once the simpecado had reached the door of the church, pulled by two oxen, a man on horseback removed his had and, red faced, began to rally.¡Viva La Virgen del Rocío! ¡Viva la Blanca Paloma!¡Viva la Marismeña! Each battle cry was followed by a hearty ¡Viva! 

“¡Y Viva Triana! ¡Viva Triana! ¡Viva Triana!”

Salida del Simpecado Rociero

 

Everyone around me erupted into song as petals were thrown from the roof of the church. While El Rocío has a steady dose of hedonism, the true root of the festival lies in soul-stirring devotion. I felt moved in the same way that Semana Santa touched me. People stopped shoving and began to cry, crossing themselves as they proclaimed that only in Heaven is the Virgen del Rocío more loved.

Want to read more about the festival? I attended the Pentecost Sunday activities –¡vestida de gitana! – in 2012.

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